Skip to main content

Scottish-recruited Units

Volume 545: debated on Wednesday 23 May 2012

It feels a bit strange to be standing here once again to address the prospects for the Scottish regiments, which we now have to refer to as the Scottish-recruited units. I remember standing in this self-same spot in the first of two debates that I managed to secure to put the case for Scotland’s historic regiments, when the previous Labour Government introduced their amalgamation plans. I remember some of the fantastic speeches and really passionate contributions from Members on both sides of the House, who recognised the incredible community links and associations that our local then regiments had with all our communities and constituencies.

The regiments brought heritage, culture and traditions to our constituencies and communities. More than anything, people recognised the admiration and respect that we all felt towards our regiments for the almost unimaginable task that they did on our behalf and the pride and respect that we had for them for fulfilling their function and making this the best Army set-up anywhere in the world.

In 2004, the Labour Government were the villains. They pushed through their amalgamations in the face of total and overwhelming opposition. I remember the rallies, the demos—the Edinburgh demonstration in December 2004 and the rally in Dundee. People came together to oppose Labour’s amalgamation plans. There were petitions. Usually, if an MP has a petition and is out on the high street, people are reluctant to sign it, but people were queuing to sign the petition to save their local regiment.

Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the issue goes back to the 1960s? One of my great-grandfathers was a pipe major in the Gordon Highlanders and one of my grandfathers went through the whole of the first world war in the Highland Light Infantry. Both those cap badges have long since disappeared. They were great regiments with great traditions, but their disappearance was not the end of civilisation as we knew it. We have seen amalgamation and changes to cap badges in the Scottish regiments for nearly 50 years.

It is with great regret that we have lost some of those fantastic regiments. There are ways to do it. Our regimental system is admired across the world, and we mess with it at our peril. We were not successful in retaining the historic Scottish regiments. They were amalgamated and the Royal Regiment of Scotland appeared. We acknowledge that with much regret.

One thing that we secured, an important concession that everyone recognises as valuable, was the idea of a golden thread that would allow the past to knit to the future and allow the former regiments some sort of identity and home within the Royal Regiment of Scotland.

When my hon. Friend speaks about the golden thread, it is not mere history or sentiment. It is essential to recruitment and retention into those geographically recruited units, such as the Black Watch, when recruits come from that area. It is vital for recruitment and retention into units such as that.

My hon. Friend is spot on. It is more than history, tradition and culture; it is about community association and links. He and I share a local regiment—the Black Watch. He and I recognise the value and importance of those community links, which are lost at our great peril.

We were not successful in preventing the amalgamation plans. We had the golden thread. Some of us were sceptical: we feared that it might be lost in the greater tapestry of the Royal Regiment of Scotland and that once it was up and running it would develop a history, tradition and momentum of its own. There was also a very great and real fear that some future Government and new Secretary of State for Defence would come along and decide that the golden thread was not worth keeping and do away with it in a new defence review. We have come close to that in the past few weeks.

We have heard all sorts of remarks from the Defence Secretary. He tried to suggest that the golden thread was not valuable or important and that things such as names, cap badges and other insignia associated with the regiments are not worth what we say they are. He said something important:

“The ancient cap badges have largely gone, they are attached in brackets to some unit names”.

With those remarks, he was attempting to say that the legacy of our former regiments was somehow a burden that needed to be addressed and conveniently disposed of in favour of mere numbers. With one stroke of a Whitehall pen, these famous names would cease to exist and be no more.

I do not think that the Defence Secretary understood or appreciated the attachment that we have to our local regiments in Scotland, but after the furore of the past few weeks, he kens noo, as we say in Perthshire. The proposition that the names, cap badges and insignia should be done away with has been received with overwhelming hostility by every sector in the defence community.

It is the same in Angus, which has a strong attachment to the Black Watch. It is about not only the current members of the regiment, but about thousands of my constituents who have family connections with the regiments that they hold very dear. Part of the thread that ties our regiments to our community is threatened.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I cannot remember the number of veterans we have in Scotland, but it was revealed recently—somewhere in the region of 80,000. There are certainly substantial numbers—all of them determined to protect their former ancient regiments, and quite right too. He is right: the regiments bring history, tradition and culture into the new regiment, and that must be worth maintaining.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is also about national identity? In Wales, we face potentially losing the 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards, which recruits, almost uniformly, from Wales and the borders. A regiment’s national identity is also important in giving a coherent community and regional identity.

The hon. Lady is correct; there is national identity. The Scottish regiments are called “the Jocks”—it is an affectionate, not demeaning, term. Maintaining national identity within the regiments is important and we must hold on to it.

My local battalion—my Scottish-raised unit—is the Black Watch. The regimental headquarters are in my constituency in Perth. They are currently being developed, Ms Dorries, and I am sure that you would like to know that we will have a fantastic new museum. Come up and visit us. It is a magnificent place.

The Black Watch has just returned from its tour of duty in Afghanistan. Thankfully, this time round, there were no fatalities or casualties, and we are all grateful for that. When the Black Watch returns to Scotland, all sorts of homecoming parades are organised across the recruiting area. There were parades in Dundee, Forfar, Kirkcaldy in Fife and, of course, a huge one in Perth. The streets were thronged. Hundreds of people turned up to show their admiration and respect for the Black Watch, which had come back safely. We organised a civic reception for it in the evening; I will not tell you what happened after that, Ms Dorries, but I will just say that it was a particularly good evening.

There is a connection between the people of Tayside and Fife and the Black Watch. It is an important and cherished connection that must be maintained. The Black Watch was raised in Aberfeldy in my constituency on the banks of the Tay in 1740 to keep watch on the lawless highlands. Thankfully, it no longer has to fulfil that task—I could refer to the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr Kennedy)—but it had an important task in those days.

It must have been in 2005, when the Black Watch was amalgamated into the new regiment of Scotland, that there was a march through Aberfeldy. It came to the fantastic Black Watch memorial—a kilted soldier looking down on the very place that the regiment was mustered. I remember speaking to an infantryman that day who had served in the Black Watch many decades ago. He gave me the clearest understanding of what it is all about. He said that it is not about Queen and country, important though they are, but about your pals—the pals who you have shared the same town with; the pals who you might have gone to school with; and the pals who you know you can rely on when the going gets tough.

That is the greatest ever description and explanation of why the regimental system works, and it cannot be put any clearer than that. That day, back in 2005, was very poignant. I remember seeing brave serving soldiers crying because it was the end of the Black Watch as an existing regiment.

I have never been a soldier and neither has the Minister. The most dangerous thing that I have ever faced was a sea of excitable fans when I was a rock musician. Listening to the testament of former soldiers and seeing what they have been through is a very important lesson.

I do not need to tell the Minister that these suggestions and proposals have been met with the most incredible hostility and opposition. According to The Sunday Times, even the Prime Minister is opposed to them. What we need to hear from the Minister today is absolute clarification on the matter. When the hon. Member for Dundee West (Jim McGovern) raised a question in the House, all we got was total equivocation from the Prime Minister. We need a clear answer. When the Minister gets to his feet, he must say without any equivocation that regimental names will continue to exist within the Royal Regiment of Scotland and that there will be no diminishing of the golden thread. In fact, he could say, “We value the golden thread; it is important and instead of diminishing it, we will enhance and develop it.”

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and congratulate him on securing this debate. I am also proud to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. Regarding the Black Watch, my mother and sister are today attending a ceremony at the Black Watch memorial at Powrie Brae, just outside Dundee. The hon. Gentleman mentions the British regimental system—and he did say “British”—but given his party’s aspirations, would a Black Watch still exist?

Without any shadow of a doubt it would continue to exist. We have a firm, clear commitment that the existing battalions will be not only maintained but developed. [Interruption.] If it is an independent Scotland, the battalions are unlikely to be British, but they will be maintained and continued.

Everything the hon. Gentleman has said in relation to the golden thread applies also in Wales. There have been suggestions that a political decision will be made not to remove the Scottish regiments for fear of influencing the devolution debate. The reverberations of that in Wales would be tremendous. Some 9% of the British Army are recruited in Wales from 3% of the population. I am talking about some 10,000 people.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. It is good to see that the cause of Scottish independence is securing support and could have an influence on the recruitment of units in Wales.

I hope the Minister will clarify some matters for us today, because that is the intention of this debate. It is unfortunate that the Secretary of State himself is not here today, but I appreciate and respect the fact that we have the Minister here. In even the darkest days of the amalgamation debates of 2004, Geoff Hoon always turned up. He always took the flak and got incredible respect for that. We really needed to have the Secretary of State here today to address our points unequivocally and end this damaging uncertainty.

There has been a suggestion, which has a degree of credibility, that this debate on our names and badges is a smokescreen and masks the Government’s true intention, which is to get on with the job of brutally decimating the Scottish defence footprint.

My hon. Friend mentions the defence footprint. He will be aware that Scotland contributes about £3.3 billion to the defence pot, but only gets back about £2 billion of the spend.

Those are the points that I want to make. Securing this regimental identity is important, but so too are the boots on the ground. There is this multi-billion pound spending gap between what the taxpayers in Scotland contribute to the Ministry of Defence and what is actually spent on defence in Scotland. I want the Minister to respond to some of this.

All we have left are four regiments in the British Army from the Scotland units. We have the Royal Regiment of Scotland with its five regular battalions and two territorial battalions. There are the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, Scotland’s only remaining cavalry regiment, the Scots Guards and the 19th Regiment Royal Artillery, the Highland Gunners. We lost the 40th Regiment Royal Artillery, the Lowland Gunners, a few weeks ago. We now have only 11,000 service personnel in the Scottish infantry, which is fewer than in Ireland. The Government should be ashamed of that.

Moreover, we have seen a further 600 jobs cut in Scotland. We were grateful to the then Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), for conceding to the Scottish Affairs Committee that between 2000 and 2010, the total reduction in service jobs in the UK was 11.6%, and that the reduction in Scotland was a massive 27.9%. That disproportionate cut is incredible. It is equivalent to 10,500 defence jobs and a £5.6 billion underspend in Scotland.

Only four of the 148 major regular Army units are based in Scotland. There is massive under-representation not only in unit numbers but in Army capabilities. At present, there are no regular artillery units, no regular signals units, no regular logistics units, no regular engineering units, no intelligence or special forces and little or no presence of combat services.

On top of that, we have the ridiculous situation, outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), in which we contribute some £3.3 billion to the defence pot and only secure £2 billion in return. There is a structural multi-billion-pound defence underspend in Scotland, disproportionate base closures and disproportionate cuts to service personnel and to Scottish regiments and battalions.

As all that is happening, we learn that the MOD has given the go-ahead to spend £350 million on designs for the next generation of Trident. Talk about skewed priorities! Spending £350 million on a weapon of mass destruction that will never be used while the regular units are being undermined, diminished and under-resourced shows us everything about the Government’s priorities.

The Scottish people will have a choice to make. They can continue to go down this particular road of underspend and of diminishing the Scottish Army footprint and resource, or they can decide that these decisions can be made in Scotland—by the Scottish people, for the Scottish people. That is the choice they will be presented with in 2014 when we have the independence referendum. I am absolutely certain and confident that when they are presented with information such as this, with the run-down of our regimental units and resources, the Scottish people will make the right choice and we will determine these issues in our own country.

I completely understand the concern and interest that have led the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) to seek this debate, and I commend him for doing so. Necessarily, the answers that I am able to give to some of his questions will be only tentative because decisions in respect of the future structure of the Army have not yet been taken. Let me set out the national security context in which those decisions will be taken.

All Members present will agree that it is the first duty of any Government to ensure the security of the country, and that requires decisions to be based on a realistic assessment of a number of factors in the short and long term. We live in an increasingly uncertain world with complex and unpredictable threats, so our armed forces, must of necessity, be flexible and adaptable into the future. We must also accept that the decisions about defence that have been made since the general election must start from the position of clearing up the economic legacy that we inherited. That is a strategic imperative, because it is the only way we will be able to afford to project power of any sort, to protect our national security and to ensure that our troops have the equipment they need. The strategic defence and security review addressed the balance between our national policy ambition, available resources and real-world commitments. It did so by making reference to the national security strategy, which set out the principal risks to our security, and to the national security tasks, which we need to fulfil.

Implementing the SDSR was always going to be an ongoing process and not a single event. We are now working through the programme to ensure that it is fit to support the capabilities required by Future Force 2020. We are going through a process of rapid change, but we have identified clearly to the public—throughout the UK, including in Scotland—our strategic aiming-point and what we believe our future force requirement will be in 2020.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) on securing this debate. Regarding the decisions to which he has just referred, the Minister will understand the great anxiety felt in Fife, around the Leuchars and Caledonia bases, about whether the British Army will be arriving and the Royal Air Force will be leaving. Although I appreciate that he is keen to get that decision correct, will he give serious consideration to updating the communities concerned on when the decision about the Army and the Air Force at the Leuchars and Caledonia bases will be taken?

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. Of course, there was a statement to the House last July, but some of the announcements made that day have been, in a sense, superseded by the current review of Army structures. To the extent that I am able to communicate with the communities that were named in last year’s statement and that are therefore working on that basis, I will give them an update as soon as I can, when the Army restructuring work nears a conclusion.

As I say, we are working towards Future Force 2020 as our defined end-point. That process includes the statement from last July and the more recent statements made by the current Defence Secretary. Specifically, we are planning to make a progressive adjustment during the remainder of this decade to the balance between regulars and reserves in the Army. By 2020, we envisage a total Army force of about 120,000 troops, made up of 82,000 regulars and 30,000 trained reservists, with a margin for 8,000 reservists in training. As we withdraw from combat operations in Afghanistan, that shift offers a major opportunity to reconfigure the Army in a way that will maximise adaptability and flexibility for the future. The Army has been undertaking a major study—Army 2020—to determine how we will achieve these changes, and we will announce to the House the outcome of that study as soon as decisions have been taken.

The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire rightly paid a warm and full tribute to the achievements and historic heritage of the famous Scottish regiments. I am sure that many hon. Members in Westminster Hall today who represent areas with a serious military footprint know only too well the pride that local populations take in such glorious histories. I add my own tributes to the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, the Scots Guards, the Royal Regiment of Scotland in its current configuration, and indeed to the Highland Gunners and the Lowland Gunners, and to their personnel who have deployed on operations in recent years. We all owe a great deal to the members of our armed forces; we owe a great deal to those who hail from Scotland, just as we do to those who hail from England, Wales, Northern Ireland and, indeed, from across the Commonwealth. I pay tribute to their courage, commitment and professionalism.

In 2006, I visited America and met General David Petraeus. I believe that he was at that time the supreme commander of the allied forces in Iraq. He was certainly an authority on the history of the Black Watch and very much an admirer of the regiment. Does the Minister agree—I hope he does—that names such as the Black Watch and regalia such as the red hackle should remain within the British Army? As General Petraeus said to me, the American forces were very envious of the fact that British regiments and battalions had such names and regalia.

Let me say that I fully recognise—as do the Government—the power of that heritage, and the strength of the identity that derives from cap badges, and to think otherwise is to completely misunderstand the piece of work that is being carried out. I will come specifically to one of the questions that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire put to me. What we are looking at is the future structure of the Army. If it serves to give him any reassurance, I will say that there is no intention as part of that work on Army restructuring to remove from the battalions of the Royal Regiment of Scotland the historic names that form such an important part of their heritage.

I am very grateful to the Minister for that, because it is a very important statement. Is there anybody within the Royal Regiment of Scotland or within the British Army who is agitating to have such types of insignia—the names and the cap badges—removed? Is there anybody who is asking for that and, if so, who are they?

I am not aware of anybody agitating to that end. Removing such insignia does not form part of the restructuring work; it is not one of the things that we are considering. We have a great respect for these issues of historical heritage. In the Royal Regiment of Scotland in particular, the historic names bring with them a great tradition that is respected around the world, and not only in Scotland or the rest of the UK. I am very sympathetic to the points about heritage that the hon. Gentleman has made in this debate.

As the Minister has given that assurance, can we be equally assured that any decision about Army restructuring will not be based on the politics of the rest of the UK’s relationship with Scotland and any future plans regarding devolution? The Sunday Times ran an article at the weekend suggesting that the Prime Minister had intervened to say that Scottish regiments must be protected and that perhaps the Welsh regiments could be looked at instead. Can I have an assurance from the Minister that no political interference is coming from No. 10 to protect Scottish regiments because of a fear of devolution?

The hon. Lady has been involved in politics too long to believe what she reads in Sunday newspapers. This restructuring is a piece of work that is being undertaken by the Army, and the Army will put its proposals forward when its review is complete. Reducing the size of the Regular Army from 102,000 to 82,000 will inevitably mean a reduction in the overall number of units that are available, and a number of critical criteria will inform the decisions about which units will be affected.

We must maintain the right balance across different capabilities—the Royal Armoured Corps, the infantry structure and the roles that different units will perform. We must also balance geographically because of the recruiting pattern; that has always been an important part of the British Army and it will continue to be in the future. We recognise that factor and it will inform the decisions that are taken. Indeed, we will also take account of previous decisions on mergers and deletions, so that we can ensure that there is a fair solution across the generations, as well as between the different branches and different geographical lay-down of the Army. Our aim is to sustain optimal capability. There are issues about basing. We cannot go to a final basing blueprint yet; that blueprint will follow hot on the heels of the current piece of restructuring work that I have described.

Although the focus of this debate has been on Scottish Army units, it is important that we take a holistic view. The Government are committed to the defence of the United Kingdom and each nation and region within it. In addition to its Army regiments, Scotland has one of our three naval bases, which in the future will be home to all our submarines. One of the three main RAF operating bases will be in Scotland. Scotland is also the home of Quick Reaction Alert North. As was made clear last summer, there will also be an Army brigade in Scotland, along with thousands of reserves and cadets. We have set out a clear vision for the armed forces across the United Kingdom, with a very significant footprint in Scotland, as part of a realistic and well thought-out national security strategy.

The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire made the point that Scottish voters will be invited at some point in the future to take a decision about Scotland’s status. They have a clear understanding of where the UK Government are steering defence in Scotland. They have yet to gain any such understanding of where those who advocate independence for Scotland are trying to get Scottish defences to, and that will be an absolute necessity to inform a realistic and balanced debate.

The armed forces are at the core of the UK’s security. They make a unique and vital contribution, for which I hope all of us—whatever part of the UK we come from—are grateful. We will make the decisions that I have talked about—decisions to ensure that the armed forces are sustainable for the future—in the interests of everybody in Scotland and across the UK as a whole.